Do we need another Sputnik? — What the Greatest Generation did to ensure American success

English: Sputnik 1 Македонски: Спутник 1

On October 4, 1957 Russia launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite.  It was a significant moment in Cold War, space, and human histories. Even more significant was the response from the United States government, which viewed the event as a crisis. Until the success of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik2 (launched a month later), the United States had viewed itself as the technological giant of the world.  We had long carried the mantle of American Exceptionalism with pride. We were the nation that created the atomic bomb, the light bulb, mass production, and human flight – our technological superiority had never been questioned and was viewed as secure.

However, as writer Roger D. Launius stated, “the Soviet success with Sputnik 1 raised in a very fundamental way the question of American technological virtuosity, and questioned American capability in so many other areas already underway that setbacks in this one was all the more damaging to the American persona.” Politicians worked together to address the crisis. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and then Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, commissioned investigations of the government’s funding of and commitment to exploring space and improving our national defense.  These investigations led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and increased funding to our nation’s education system.

In 1958 the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was signed, which authorized four years of funding for U.S. schools. The breakthrough legislation was designed to increase the number of students learning applied sciences and mathematics in public schools and universities.  The government was seeking to cultivate the next generation of students to create, innovate, and develop the technology that would shape our nation. The NDEA was designed to educate and develop the nation’s defense-oriented personnel by providing federal help to foreign language scholars, area study centers, and engineering students. It also provided financial assistance for thousands of students who would be part of the growing numbers enrolling at colleges and universities in the 1960s. Congress would also authorize significant increased funding for the National Science Foundation. The United States had a clear understanding in the late 1950s of the importance of education not only to our world standing and future, but also to our national defense.

Ultimately, the program was a success. By 1960, college enrollments had increased to 3.6 million students. In 1969, the United States won the space race by successfully launching Project Apollo and the first manned flight to the moon. By 1970, 7.5 million students (40% of college-aged youths) were attending the nation’s colleges. It was a golden age for education and innovation. It was a golden age for the United States.

So what ever happened to those NDEA students that benefitted from the same public education effort that helped put a man on the moon? Today 46% of those that identify themselves as Tea Party supporters are between the ages of 45 and 64. The majority of the Tea Party faithful were the children of the NDEA. They enjoyed the greatest strategic focus on public education this nation has ever seen.  That commitment to education directly impacted the future Tea Party in a profound way and (although some choose not to acknowledge it) contributed to their future opportunities and successes.  One would like to believe that this great educational push of the last century would have created a generation that would embrace and promote the nation’s commitment to education. That has not happened. Rather, there are many who would prefer to reverse the course.

Today many of the politically active members of the NDEA generation/Tea Party are vehemently opposed to government growth – the very growth they were beneficiaries of as children.  They often oppose the expansion of public education in our country, even calling for closing the Department of Education. In many communities, local Tea Parties work against tax increases to benefit school districts and have successfully sought reductions in education funding at state levels. In 2012 37 U.S. states funded students at a lower level than in the previous year. The Texas Republican Party furthered the disdain for education in their 2012 platform, turning against teaching critical thinking skills in schools.  In fact, the Tea Party has even opposed the expansion of education for students in the United States calling for the dismantling of “all the sophistries and gimmicks introduced by progressive educators in the last 100 years, for example, Sight-Words, New Math/Reform Math, Constructivism, Self-Esteem, Multiculturalism, Fuzziness of any kind, Group Learning, etc. Instead, there must be a renewed emphasis on foundational knowledge and basic skills, with mastery of both.”

Despite these coordinated and careless efforts to defund and scale back public education, I would submit to you, and to the members of the Tea Party, that our crisis of competitive disadvantage and need for educational focus is no different today than it was in 1957. Tea Party supporters, when you were young students, you benefited from an increased national investment in education in response to a global necessity – competition.  In the spirit of that competition, our government provided funding, training, and the ability to experiment in order to succeed in a changing global environment. Today our crisis is rooted in our nation’s ability to produce educated individuals to fill jobs in the global market. In the 21st century is our public education system equipped to provide our students the skill sets and knowledge they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow? Sadly, without the threat of the Russians and the glamour and mystery of space exploration, it seems that the commitment to education has not received the same fanfare or urgency today as it did in the 1950s.

Perhaps it’s time for a new Sputnik or evil axis boogeyman? Consider that by 2030, China alone will account for 30% of the world’s new college-educated workers. In comparison, the United States will account for only 5%. China is also churning out far more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates.  Chinese spending on education has grown by 20% per year since 1999. By comparison, U.S. spending in education has increased an average of 3% per year.

Flag of the Chinese Communist Party 贛語: 中國共產黨黨...
Flag of the Chinese Communist Party (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This increased investment in education has placed China in a strong position to lead the world in technological advancements through the next several decades. If we are not diligent in our support of education, without the political rhetoric of efficiency and the new-found interest in debt reduction, we will be looking to China to engineer our bridges, raise our skyscrapers, and design our iPhones.  But with expanded investment in and a renewed commitment to education, we can instead look to our own talented Americans to fill these critical roles. If provided the same benefits of education that we provided to the previous generation, these young Americans are more than capable of being the next generation of creators rather than limited to assemblers.

Understanding the crisis before us, President Obama’s administration unveiled a plan this week to establish a national Master Teacher Corps. The billion dollar program would recruit an elite cadre of advanced math and science teachers to ensure the United States maintains its place as a world leader in science, technology, and math. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We’re not just fighting for better education here. We’re fighting for our country. If we want to keep good jobs in this country, we know we need a much better educated workforce…”

So how will the United States answer this call? Will our political leaders, like the generation before them, work together to address the nation’s need for better educational opportunities? Or will they instead refuse compromise and choose the selfish and dangerous road of partisan politics – a zero sum game that will never return this nation to greatness? Will the Tea Party faithful recall their days as students and the opportunities a strong public education system laid at their feet? Or will they retreat to the narrow-visioned and politically-motivated calls for fiscal efficiency and espouse a scorched earth policy to reach those goals? Will they show true concern for their grandchildren and fund their future, or will they instead turn their backs to uphold the pinky swears they’ve made with anti-tax crusaders.  (Interestingly, Americans for Tax Reform zealot Grover Norquist, who graduated from public education in the early 1970s, also benefitted from the NDEA educational focus.)

What has happened to our pride, nationalism, and belief in American exceptionalism? Are these so-called Tea Party patriots willing to accept, and even advocate, allowing the United States to trail behind the world in innovation, education, and technological advancements? Their continued attack on public education will certainly take us there. Frankly, what could be more treasonous than self-proclaimed patriots defunding and dismantling the very education system that helped make this country great? What could be more selfish than benefitting from educational advancement and investment as students and then turning a cold shoulder to the next generation? Surely the Founding Fathers the Tea Party fervent love to point to, including Thomas Jefferson who founded a university and donated his private library to Congress after his death (later becoming the Library of Congress), would not approve of this destruction of public education.

In their zombie-like quest to reduce government spending at all costs, the Tea Party has proven themselves to be anything but patriots. Rather, they have proven themselves to be short-sighted and self-centered. They got theirs, America, so let the future of the nation and their grandchildrens’ generations be damned.  Shame on you Tea Party! The Greatest Generation that provided you the educational foundation for your successes would be sorely disappointed in what you’ve become. Instead of dressing in quirky historical costumes, I urge you to read and understand history. I urge you to look at this nation’s greatest moments and how they were achieved. Learn from our past. Dream for our future. I urge you to do the right thing for this country and future generations – it’s time to earn the title of “patriot.”

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